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An encounter with Mary Kingsley

I had got about halfway through drawing the first of Eyra Toggenburg’s travels. when it occurred to me that there might be some useful reference material in the library. I typed ‘Victorian women explorers’ into the catalogue search and that was how I stumbled across Mary Kingsley.


I was immediately struck by the similarities between my idea of Eyra Toggenburg and the character of Mary Kingsley. Both were self assured, adventurous women who travelled alone in difficult circumstances yet still managed to maintain a sense of humour and develop a pragmatic attachment to the beauty of their surroundings. I have little doubt that some of Mary's characteristics have influenced the evolution of Eyra Toggenburg and I sometimes feel her looking over my shoulder, disapprovingly, if I wander off the path a little with a  story!  


Mary Henrietta Kingsley was born in 1862 and began her travels when she was thirty years old, after a lifetime  looking after her ailing mother and acting as an unpaid secretary to her father who spent more time abroad than at home. The death of her parents left her grief stricken but, at last, gave her the emotional and financial freedom to pursue her own interests.


She made two voyages to West Africa, the first in 1892, followed by a second, more extensive voyage, in 1895. On this trip, she carried out scientific research, particularly into the fresh water fish in the extensive network of rapid strewn West African rivers. She documented her journeys in the excellent (and extremely thick!) "Travels in West Africa", which became a great success and catapulted her into the limelight of Victorian society.


A series of lecture tours followed, which increased her popularity. She had never courted celebrity, and when the Boer war (1892-1902) began, she took the opportunity to visit Africa again, this time nursing Boer prisoners of war. After only two months, she contracted typhoid and died on June 3rd 1900, aged only thirty-eight.


If you'd like to know more about Mary Kingsley, a good place to start is with her, "Travels in West Africa" published in 1897. It is still a gripping read and an interesting insight into the Victorian age of scientific exploration and adventure.  


Katherine Frank's illustrated biography, "A Voyager Out" is  a captivating, in-depth analysis of the real motivations and circumstances that propelled Mary Kinglsey half-way across the world to a land of extremes of climate, deadly disease and startling wildlife.


Caroline Alexander's, "One Dry Season"  traces a large portion of Mary Kingsley's travels nearly a century later and also provides some interesting background information on Robert Hamill Nassau and Albert Schweitzer.  The book also introduced me to Trader Horn - life will never be the same again!


Ri Largo 2014

"The majesty and beauty of the scene fascinated me and I stood leaning with my back against a rock pinnacle watching it. Do not imagine it gave rise, in what I am pleased to call my mind, to those complicated poetical reflections natural beauty seems to bring out in other peoples’ minds. It never works that way with me; I just lose all sense of human individuality, all memory of human life with its grief and worry and doubt, and become part of the atmosphere. If I have a heaven, that will be mine.’"


Mary Kingsley, "Travels in West Africa"

Portrait of Mary Kingsley
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